By Philippa Kelly, Dramaturge of Cal Shakes
In an idyllic setting just past the Caldecott tunnel, tree trunks stretch quietly ever skywards, indifferent to the cries of condemned prisoners, thunderous Dukes, murderous husbands, and unrequited lovers ringing out from the stage of a gorgeous amphitheater in the golden hills. It’s a place where a Shakespeare soliloquy can be augmented at any moment by the soft gobbling of turkeys, or by the mooing of cows from a nearby hillside.
This is the Bruns, verdant home to the California Shakespeare Theater since the early 1990s after a resounding cry from residents living near Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park: “No more late Shakespeare nights! No more sandwiches and thermoses! No more sleeping bags, trumpet sounds or elves swinging from trees! No more porta potties!” With the help of law enforcement, these chronically sleep-deprived Berkeley residents sent us out to seek refuge for our stage elsewhere.
John Hinkel Park Amphitheater
Eventually, we found our home with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which granted us the right to lease land for a song, and to build an amphitheater whose proportions come within 5 centimeters of Shakespeare’s Globe. This beautiful, open stage nestled in the hills is the unceded territory of the Ohlone peoples, and in our narrative of exile and acquisition we must first and always acknowledge the original inhabitants for whom this land is the ancestral home.
Then and now, California Shakespeare productions from 1974 at John Hinkel Park and 2018 at The Bruns.
For the past 30 summers we’ve made plays amidst the warmth of the sun, the cool slicing of a late afternoon breeze, and the night-time fog – until 2020 when, for the first time, the Bruns was silent for 18 months. Silent, that is, except for its bevy of animals, the squirrels and turkeys and racoons and skunks, the western screech-owl and the turkey vultures, who suddenly had the hushed hills to themselves. And now, as our Cal Shakes community prepares to re-join them, we welcome West Edge Opera – its creatives and audiences – who are bringing to our community their magnificent in-person opera performances.
The California Shakespeare Theater and West Edge Opera have a lot in common. Like the robust trees at the Bruns, both organizations have deep and enduring local roots. A community of Berkeley people passionate about the performing arts provided the founding inspiration for both West Edge Opera (once called Berkeley Opera), and Cal Shakes (originally the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival), injecting a deep commitment to cultural ideals and progressive politics. Both organizations have always rejected the idea of producing “museum pieces,” favoring instead new voices and alternate points of view. And both embody the spirit of Bay Area creativity: love + inspiration + rigorous commitment = art that seeks to be as unique, as surprising, as fertile, as is our Bay Area environment.
(L-R: West Edge Opera's LuLu and Cal Shakes, The Twelfth Night)
“If music be the food of love, play on!” This is the opening for Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. I am married to a composer, and am fascinated by the relationship between words and music. Music, like metaphor, has the capacity to go so much further than literal expression ever can. Shakespeare’s plays are full of musicality that infuses character and situation.
The incantatory, magical, and ritual uses of song are central not just to Twelfth Night, with its plethora of musical references, but to such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and The Tempest. In Midsummer, the fairies use “You spotted snakes” as a sleep-inducing charm, while in The Tempest, Ariel’s song, “Come unto these yellow sands,” reassures the shipwrecked survivors in Prospero’s magical realm that they are all OK and in a safe place. In Othello Desdemona’s Willow song gives voice to an unspeakable situation of generational loss. How fitting it is, then, that this season – in what Cal Shakes is calling our “season of shared light” –we listen for music to ring out from the Bruns, expressing the infinite variety of who we are, who we seek to be, what we long to be again, as human beings.